“The Upside of Confusion” is Subject of CTL Lecture

A Good Student is not the same as a Good Thinker, says Robert Duke

HARTFORD, CT, March 8, 2013 – The vast majority of students have one thing in common: they live in dread fear of making mistakes, said Robert Duke, who delivered a Center for Teaching and Learning Center (CTL) lecture Thursday entitled, “Strategic Confusion: Why being a good student isn’t the same as being a good thinker.”


​Robert Duke, top right, delivers a Center for Teaching and Learning lecture in Mather Hall. (Photo by Nick Lacy)

Due to the fear of failure, said Duke, many students he’s encountered are “stressed, oppressed and grade-anxious.” But, he asserted, instead of living in fear of being wrong, students should make every effort to learn from their mistakes, which can be a “messy and confusing but ultimately very interesting” and rewarding endeavor.

Duke is the Marlene and Morton Meyerson Centennial Professor and Head of Music and Human Learning at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a University Distinguished Teaching Professor, Elizabeth Shatto Massey Distinguished Fellow in Teacher Education and Director of the Center for Music Learning. In addition, Duke is an adviser to the Psychology of Learning Program at the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles.

Duke noted that nearly every student has had one or more experiences in school in which he or she felt totally unmotivated. He cited his own example of taking a geography class, which he thought was the most boring course ever because he and his classmates were made to memorize countless facts without the instructor putting them in context. “It was as though we couldn’t get to the pleasurable stuff until we had done the requisite suffering.”

But years later, he explained, he discovered that it wasn’t geography itself that was not thought provoking, but the uninteresting way that it had been taught by his instructor that made it seem so dull.

Thus, Duke said, the challenge for teachers it to make the subject matter come alive and to present it in a way that stokes the imagination of students and motivates them to want to learn more.

Communication was also high on Duke’s list as something that the education system is failing to teach its students. He claimed that today’s students are mostly mediocre writers who don’t know how to clearly communicate and certainly don’t know how to present information in a memorable way.

Duke spoke about the fundamental elements of effective teaching, which he characterized as having an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, creating a positive learning environment, having clear instructional goals and creating an assessment tool by which teachers can measure what students have learned.

Duke concluded his informative and entertaining remarks by saying he would like to emphasize two major points. The first is that teachers are learners, too, and they should be attentive to students who reveal their gaps in understanding. It’s all right to try something new. If it doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to go in a different direction, he said.

“Learning is fraught with failure when it’s effective,” he said. Also, he urged teachers to use innovative methods to gauge what students have learned, methods that don’t necessarily translate into numerical grades.

The second major point is to change learner’s perceptions of their own behavior – “not just what they do but what they think about what they do.”

Duke had some parting thoughts for the professors in attendance, including that they shouldn’t try to cram too much content in too short a time span. “The notion that [peppering students] with things way too fast enriches them is wrong,” he said.

He also noted that professors should stick to teaching what they like because students can sense their distaste. He used the example of an English teacher who taught Moby Dick every semester in an American literature course simply because it was a given that Moby Dick is an example of great American literature. But, in fact, the teacher despised the book and the students could tell.

“Dogs can smell fear,” Duke said, “and freshmen can smell boredom.”

Duke’s lecture was one in a series that the CTL is sponsoring that speaks to the question: How do you awaken curiosity in students who don’t initially seem very curious?

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